Now that the shock-and-awe summer movie season is upon us, things are about to get very repetitive at the multiplex. Not to mention very, very loud. As a bit of counterprogramming, allow me to recommend Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, the most original and beautifully strange love story since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—and my favorite film of the year so far. It’s probably worth mentioning right up front that Lanthimos’ films aren’t for everyone. They’re deadpan and almost clinically detached. At times they feel like dispatches from a distant alien planet. But if you’re willing to surrender to his singular vision, you might just walk out of the theater seeing the world in a new way—which is probably more than you can expect from the new Kevin Hart comedy.
The 42-year-old Greek writer-director became a world-cinema darling with 2009’s Dogtooth, a surreal tale about three grown children raised by their parents in Skinner-box seclusion who have no knowledge of the outside world. His follow-up, 2012’s Alps, revolved around a business that impersonates the recently deceased to help their loved ones through the grieving process. Both films were visually stunning and narratively bold, but there was something a bit too remote about them. The Lobster has some of that same chilliness, but as the story goes on, it begins to thaw and reveal a real warmth and sense of romantic longing that make it Lanthimos’ most mature film yet. It’s also his first in English with Hollywood actors.
A formidable, fully committed Colin Farrell stars as David, a hangdog thirtysomething whose wife has just left him for another man. In Lanthimos’ wiggy alternate universe, that means that he now has 45 days to find a new romantic partner or else he will be surgically turned into an animal of his choosing and released into the wild. Most folks in his shoes elect to be reincarnated as dogs (that’s why there are so many of them). Instead, David chooses to become a lobster, because, he says, “they live for over a hundred years, they’re blue-blooded like aristocrats, and they stay fertile all their lives.” Plus, he adds, “I like the sea very, very much.” Along with others in newly single circumstances, David checks into a spa-like retreat where he can stiffly mingle with prospective partners. There he meets a couple of fellow new arrivals played by Ben Whishaw and a lisping John C. Reilly, both of whom nail Lanthimos’ signature bone-dry tone.
The film’s resort setting is like Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel crossed with an Orwellian prison, and David, with a caterpillar mustache and a sad-sack paunch, does his best to find a compatible new mate. But as his crustacean deadline looms, he has a change of heart and decides to flee into the surrounding woods to join up with “The Loners”—a resistance group (led by a wonderful Léa Seydoux) that refuses to cave in to society’s Kafkaesque rules governing love. One of these chaste fugitives, played by a heartbreaking Rachel Weisz, turns out to be the soul mate he’s been searching for—only she’s turned up too late. Or has she?
The existential rabbit-hole plot of The Lobster couldn’t be more bonkers. The premise shouldn’t work at all, but it does…and beautifully. It’s like a missing chapter of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex…but Were Afraid to Ask that Woody Allen never bothered shooting because it was too absurd. Lanthimos stuffs his scalpel-sharp satire about the way our culture looks down on single people with provocative ideas and heady metaphors you’ll be chewing on for days and weeks after you’ve left the theater. In one scene, Farrell soaks in a hot tub next to a cruel potential mate—he’s a tormented soul being slowly cooked to death in his own personal lobster pot. In others, exotic animals like flamingos and camels wander through the woodsy background of the frame. It’s odd at first. Then, after a while, you start to think: I wonder who that rabbit was before he or she was turned into a rabbit. As far as I’m concerned, any filmmaker who gets you thinking along those lines is doing something very, very right. A